How militant Islamism, the war against terror and famine are connected in Somalia.
The current famine in the Horn of Africa threatens the lives of more than ten million people. It particularly hit southern and central Somalia, where hundreds of thousands are on the move to avoid starvation and trying to reach refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, or at least some places in Somalia where aid is delivered.
Periodical droughts that endanger the existence of men and animals are nothing new in the Horn. Their frequency and severity, however, increased over the past decades due to global and regional environmental changes and changing demographic and economic patterns at the local level.
What led to acute famine in Somalia in 2011 cannot be explained by referring to the ecological developments alone. The famine was produced by a combination of natural and man-made factors. The latter are related to state-failure and ongoing war in southern and central Somalia. The war rages between an internationally recognized but locally hardly legitimate Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its allies on the one side, and militant Islamists – most prominently Al Shabaab – on the other. It has been fueled by outside interventions in the context of the global war against terror.
The situation in southern and central Somalia shows first, the limitless cynicism of some of the Somali political actors; second, the lack of understanding, vision and will on the side of the international community with regard to Somalia; third, the terrible political neighborhood in which Somalia is situated; and fourth, a frightening ignorance of the diplomatic world community about basic preconditions (or the lack of these preconditions) for successful peace-building and state formation.
The key-actors involved in the ongoing fighting and the production of famine in Southern and Central Somalia are Al Shabaab, the TFG, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the USA and the AU-mission in Somalia called AMISOM. There are some more Somali militias such as Hizbul Islam and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a. They, however, did only play a subordinate role and are therefore not further considered in this essay.
Al Shabaab, whose name translates as “The Youth”, started as a small terror cell of dedicated Somali jihadists around Adan Hashi Ayro, a relatively young Somali veteran from Afghanistan, who had been in contact with Al Qaida. This cell emerged in Mogadishu in the early 2000s. It engaged in a kind of “dirty war” against the warlords and their militias, who were paid by the USA and Ethiopia for snatching and deporting or eliminating terror suspects in Mogadishu after the 9/11-attacks.
Without much international attention Somalia had become a theater of the global war on terror. Djibouti was the central base for the US-operations. Simultaneously, the militant Islamists began to “clear” their way of other potential obstacles for establishing a larger jihadi movement in Somalia. They assassinated some moderate Somali sheikhs, civil society activists and foreign aid workers in southern Somalia.
In Somaliland in the northwest, four foreigners were killed in 2003 and 2004 by people who most probably had contact to the nascent terror cell in Mogadishu. The militant Islamists gained international attention when they desecrated an Italian cemetery in Mogadishu dating from colonial time in mid-2005.
While most Somalis despised that action it also impressed some more radical Somali businessmen who financially supported the extremists. Aden Hashi Ayro was protected by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, an influential Somali Islamist leader. Aweys had been a former military officer under Mohamed Siyaad Barre, had turned Islamist already in the 1970s, had led the first Islamist militia in Somalia named Al Ittihad in the mid-1990s and served as the head of the Ifka Halane shari’a court in Mogadishu in the early 2000s.
A number of shari’a courts have been existing in Mogadishu and other parts of southern Somalia already since 1994. They partly cooperated with local warlords and generally provided law and order in their immediate neighborhoods. They employed some armed men to patrol the streets and apprehend suspects.
In 2005, Aweys made Ayro the leader of the militia of his shari’a court. In early 2006, around ten shari’a courts in Mogadishu united their forces to attack a warlord-alliance built by the USA with the intention to clear Mogadishu of Islamists. In the ensuing fighting the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) won and ousted the warlords from Mogadishu.
In June 2006, the Somali capital was for the first time in 15 years controlled by only one power. The Islamists immediately cleared the streets of road-blocks, established security and cleaned-up the city of waste. This earned them legitimacy in the eyes of the ordinary people.
Somalis inside and outside of Somalia hoped for a new beginning under the UIC. Many returned to Mogadishu to secure their property they had given up due to civil war and/or to invest in the now stable and economically bristling city.
Al Shabaab officially had become the “youth organization” of the UIC. The UIC was led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a younger and relatively unknown Islamist. It was dominated by members of the Hawiye clan-family that resided in Mogadishu and its surroundings. Al Shabaab was not having a clear clan-profile. Its members belonged to various Somali clans from different regions, including the north (Somaliland and Puntland).
The young extremists had been dedicated fighters against the warlords and after June 2006 strived to increase their influence within the UIC. Soon, the courts expanded their control over much of Southern Somalia. They did so without fighting since local communities asked the Islamists to come to their town or village and establish law and order. This threatened the TFG under President Abdullahi Yusuf.
The TFG had been founded in a peace conference in Kenya. The conference was funded by the international community and lasted, with interruptions, from October 2002 to January 2005. Its objective was to establish a federal government for Somalia.
The main actors on the Somali side were around two dozen warlords. The main external powers were Kenya and particularly Ethiopia. The process of establishing a parliament lacked transparency; many parliamentarians came directly from the diaspora and had not been in Somalia for many years.
In October 2004 the new parliament elected Abdullahi Yusuf, the former warlord and president of Puntland, as president of the TFG. Yusuf had been the candidate of Ethiopia. He was a member of the Darood clan-family and an intimate enemy of Somali Islamists since he had defeated Al Ittihat in the north in 1992.
Influential Hawiye leaders (elders as well as Islamists) immediately announced that they would not welcome the TFG in Mogadishu. Many members of the new government preferred staying in Kenya to moving to Somalia. Only in mid-2005, the TFG took its seat first in Jowhar, a small town some 70 kilometers north of Mogadishu. Later it moved to Baydhoa, a town about 250 kilometers northwest of Mogadishu. Some Hawiye MPs and ministers (cum warlords) split and established themselves in Mogadishu. The TFG was from the beginning never functioning as a government.
The weakness of the TFG eased the takeover of de facto governance by the UIC in much of Southern Somalia in mid-2006. The TFG was confined to Baydhoa. The only strong backing for Abdullahi Yusuf came from Ethiopia, which clandestinely sent troops to protect the TFG.
The international community, particularly the Arab League, tried to establish a dialogue between the UIC and the TFG. It organized meetings in Khartoum from July 2006 onward. However, among both parties, the hardliners gained the upper hand. Abdullahi Yusuf was never interested in compromising with the Islamists, nor was Ethiopia. The fact that Eritrea had announced its strong backing for the UIC did additionally complicate the situation and provide the basis for an Ethiopian-Eritrean proxy war in Somalia.
Al Shabaab undermined those in the UIC that were willing to negotiate with the TFG and provoked Ethiopia and the USA. The youth-movement took Kismayo, the strategically important port 450 kilometers south of Mogadishu, by force (in cooperation with another radical group called Ras Kambooni Brigades). This evoked the impression among the concerned international community that the UIC as a whole was dedicated to pursue its aims by military means.
Al Shabaab subjected the population under its control to harsh restrictions regarding dress-code, social and cultural life and behavior. It thereby encouraged reports about the “Talibanization” of Somalia in the western media. Finally Osama Bin Laden and his deputy, al-Zawahiri, used the situation for their own propaganda purposes. They issued audio messages in which they warned outside powers not to intervene in Somalia and called upon Somalis to establish an Islamic government. But besides “moral support” Al Qaeda did not get involved.
The negotiations between the TFG and the UIC failed in October 2006. The USA signaled its support for a military solution and in December 2006 around 14,000 Ethiopian troops, aided logistically by the USA, invaded Somalia. Within one week, the UIC was defeated and its remaining troops and leadership on the run.
The USA conducted a number of missile strikes in January 2007 to eliminate high-ranking Islamists. However, no leading UIC-members were killed. Most of them found refuge in Asmara (Eritrea), where they, together with other opposition figures that had fallen out with the TFG under Abdullahi Yusuf, formed the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS).
Arguably, the military take-over of Mogadishu by Somalia’s Islamists in 2006 was a direct answer to the American and Ethiopian counter-terrorism strategy in Somalia. The remainder of the essay argues that the Ethiopian military intervention at the end of 2006 triggered the events that four years later, in early 2011, led to the disastrous combination of drought and war resulting in the famine in parts of Southern and Central Somalia.
The Ethiopian intervention had brought the TFG to Mogadishu. The government of Abdullahi Yusuf, however, did not enjoy legitimacy among the majority of the locals. To the contrary, already in January 2007, an insurgency of Hawiye clan-militias and re-grouped Islamist cells against the Ethiopians and the TFG started in Mogadishu.
AMISOM, the mission sent by the AU after having received the mandate from the UN-Security Council to contribute to the stability in Somalia, could not calm the situation down. To the contrary, AMISOM soon became a party to the conflict on the side of the TFG.
Between January 2007 and December 2008 the level of violence inside Mogadishu increased dramatically. More than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, lost their lives, many more were injured and up to one million had to temporarily flee their homes. All parties involved in the fighting committed atrocities and war crimes.
Among the insurgent Islamists, Al Shabaab soon proved to be the most powerful group. The ruthless attacks of the Ethiopians and the TFG troops on neighborhoods in which insurgents were suspected to be found helped Al Shabaab to present itself as a savior of the people in Mogadishu from the barbaric occupation. For many Somalis in Somalia, even in the peaceful north (in Somaliland and Puntland), and in the diaspora the idea that Ethiopian troops controlled Mogadishu was unbearable. They added to the support Al Shabaab continued to receive from Eritrea.
The number of Al Shabaab fighters increased from around 400 in early 2006 to around 3000 in 2008. By then the movement included also a small but influential group of foreign, non-Somali jihadists, such as the US-citizen Omar Hammani, who became famous as commander by the name Mansur Al Amriki.
In May 2008 Aden Hashi Ayro was killed (together with dozens of other people) in an US-missile attack on a village in Central Somalia. This, however, did not break Al Shabaab. To the contrary, within weeks a new leader named Ahmed Abdi Godane took over and proved to be equally if not more extreme than Ayro.
Parallel to the war in Mogadishu, the international community engaged parts of the ARS in Asmara and of the TFG into a new dialogue that took place in Djibouti. This so called Djibouti-process finally led to the isolation of the hardliners among the leadership of both the Somali Islamist opposition in Eritrea and the TFG.
At the end of 2008 Ethiopia announced the withdrawal of its troops from Somalia. Abdullahi Yusuf, who always had favored a military strategy to deal with opposition, stepped down in December 2008. This cleared the way for the formation of a new TFG.
During the Djibouti-process Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the former UIC leader, had established himself as the key figure within the ARS who was acceptable to Ethiopia and the USA. It was agreed to double the seats in the Somali parliament to 550 in order to include “moderate” Islamists. This should make the new TFG more acceptable to people in Mogadishu.
A the end of January 2009 Sheikh Sharif was elected the new president of the TFG. The international community and a number of Somalis hoped that this moderate Islamic government could bring peace to Mogadishu and establish control over Southern Somalia. However, Al Shabaab immediately announced that it did not recognize the “traitor” Sheikh Sharif. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, Sheikh Sharif’s former co-leader of the UIC, had been marginalized during the Djibouti-process. He was still perceived by Ethiopia and the USA as a militant Islamist.
Aweys went from Asmara to Mogadishu in April 2009 and formed Hizbul Islam as the second big opposition force against the new TFG, besides Al Shabaab. Both groups started their fight against Sheikh Sharif and his government in Mogadishu in May 2009.
After the Ethiopians had withdrawn the only strong military power in the city that could protect the TFG was AMISOM. Until the end of 2010, Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam controlled most quarters of Mogadishu and large parts of Southern and Central Somalia. Together the opposition had around 8,000 fighters. The TFG and AMISOM together had less soldiers, at least until mid-2010.
The war on terror in Somalia clearly escalated and “got out of hand” from early 2007 onward. The external intervention and the politics that actually were designed to crush or at least marginalize the extremists strengthened them and gave them, for some time at least, considerable legitimacy in the eyes of many Somalis. The rise of Al Shabaab as the most extreme Islamist militia that in 2009 and 2010 effectively governed large parts of southern and central Somalia was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The conflict between the militant Islamists and the TFG and its allies also had an impact in the humanitarian sector. From 2009 onward, Washington demanded that aid given by international donors to Somalia must not fall into the hands of the terrorists.
This effectively meant that large parts of Southern and Central Somalia that were under the control of Al Shabaab or Hizbul Islam were excluded from international aid. Only a few NGOs continued to operate there. They were pressurized by the Islamists to adhere to certain “Islamic” standards and had to pay high “taxes”.
Simultaneously, Al Shabaab identified the World Food Program (WFP) as an “enemy”. It accused the WFP of destroying the economy of Somali peasants by delivering free food from abroad. Islamist militias attacked several local WFP offices in southern Somalia and in January 2010 the organization announced its withdrawal from the country.
Not everybody in Al Shabaab had been in favor of “kicking out” WFP. However, the hardliners among the leadership had most probably fought (and won) this battle for propaganda reasons – to show the West (the USA and other western states are the main donors to the WFP) that they could do without it. A good harvest in 2010 temporarily reduced the negative consequences of the withdrawal of much of the international aid community from Southern Somalia.
Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam started a new military offensive in Ramadan (August/September) 2010. They declared that they would struggle for the ultimate victory over their enemies in Mogadishu and called upon all locals in Mogadishu to support the fight, even during the holy month.
Two factors hindered the progress of the offensive. First, the fighting force of the TFG and AMISOM had increased by mid-2010. AMISOM eventually had reached the strength of 8,000 soldiers (from Uganda and Burundi). The TFG had built a force of some 2,000 soldiers.
The expenses for training, salaries and equipment of both armies were covered by the international community – while the EU and some Arabic states provided finances, the USA also supported the TFG militarily. Eritrea had been isolated and sanctioned for supporting Somalia’s militant Islamists. It was also too far away to effectively interfere on the side of Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam.
Second, splits had occurred within the Islamist opposition. Al Shabaab had been fighting with Hizbul Islam in some areas, e.g. in and around Kismayo, since mid-2009. Both leaders Ahmed Abdi Godane and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys competed for the leadership role in the opposition. Al Shabaab finally managed to take over most positions of Hizbul Islam, which increasingly was deserted by its own fighters.
In December 2010, Al Shabaab officially “incorporated” Hizbul Islam. Moreover, the internal cohesion of Al Shabaab had been weakened by long-standing differences between the radical leadership and some foreign Jihadists, on the one side, and more pragmatic commanders, on the other side, who probably would have dealt with western aid organizations including the WFP differently and who felt marginalized by Godane.
The Islamist offensive got stuck in December 2010. In February 2011, the TFG, AMISOM and, along the borders of Southwestern Somalia, the Ethiopian and Kenyan armies began their counter-attack.
Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a, which controlled some parts of central Somalia, was strongly supported by Ethiopia and had entered a fragile alliance with the TFG also marched against Al Shabaab. The opposition forces lost ground in Mogadishu and the Gedo region of Southwestern Somalia.
The fighting displaced thousands of people. It coincided with the climax of a periodic drought when the rains in the “big rainy season” (Somali: gu) again failed to fall in April 2011. In the context of intensive fighting, massive displacement and lack of access of aid organizations drought turned into famine. Soon, thousands of Somalis arrived in Kenya and partly Ethiopia every day to find remedy in the refugee camps along the border.
Al Shabaab lost its potential to (forcibly) recruit from the local population. In July, the speaker of the movement called the famine in Somalia “Western propaganda”. Some Islamist commanders ordered the starving people to stay in their place and threatened to punish them if they would try to flee.
In August Al Shabaab announced its “strategic” withdrawal from Mogadishu. But it would be too early to celebrate this as a victory over the militant Islamists and a new beginning for the people in Southern and Central Somalia.
First, Al Shabaab maintains a presence of hidden terror units inside Mogadishu and still has bases in the outskirts of the city. The movement has switched to classical guerrilla tactics and has continued to attack its enemies in and around Mogadishu.
Second, Al Shabaab has not been militarily defeated. It lost many fighters and lost its economic base in Mogadishu – the Bakaara market. But it still controls parts of Southern and Central Somalia.
Third, even if the by now militarily very strong AMISOM troops could defeat Al Shabaab, this does not mean that the TFG could take over power. The TFG is weakened by internal conflicts and corruption and has so far not proven its capacity to govern and deliver services to the population.
There is a real danger that after the defeat of Al Shabaab new or old criminal forces such as the infamous warlords would try to fill the vacuum. This will not lead to more peace and stability for most ordinary Somalis.
Finally, while the international community has now at least access to Mogadishu, which is largely controlled by AMISOM and TFG since August, reports have already emerged that much of the aid is diverted. It is either looted by TFG soldiers or sold by (criminal) businessmen who served as contractors to the WFP and other organizations that recently resumed their work in Somalia. This situation reveals the lack of effective governance by the TFG but also the large aid organizations on the ground.
Currently, there is no alternative to delivering humanitarian aid, even if some of it is getting diverted. However, the current crisis in Southern and Central Somalia hints at some structural dilemmas and problems of Somali and non-Somali actors involved in the Somali politics.
External actors such as the UN, AU, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the USA have over the past years massively intervened in Somali affairs. They have done so partly following opposite aims (e.g., Ethiopia and Eritrea). The international community as well as bilateral actors have moreover favored the cooperation with warlords, at least until 2006.
The more legitimate actors such as civil society and moderate/non-violent Islamists who worked in their local communities and partly delivered law and order (the shari’a courts did so in the early 2000s) were ignored. Additionally, politics with regard to Somalia had frequently a violent or military character, as shown by the “dirty war” against terror suspects in Mogadishu after 9/11 and the Ethiopian and AMISOM interventions from 2006 onward. (Compare also the anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia).
Most of these interventions were designed to be short-term. They had to be prolonged ad hoc, after it had become clear that they did not reach their aims but complicated the situation further. In this way external interventions fuelled new and extensive fighting in Southern and Central Somalia with Mogadishu as the epicenter of violence. This, in combination with a periodical drought – which is per se nothing new in the Horn and particularly in Somalia – led to the famine of 2011.
The current humanitarian disaster is one of the worst the Somalis have seen in recent history. It is only “topped” by what happened in 1991/1992, when war and drought combined and led to the death of around 300,000 Somalis in Southern Somalia.
Against this background, it is time that the international community – if it is really willing to engage substantially in Somalia – develops a long-term political plan that is based on civilian, not violent or military approaches. The peace and stability in Northern Somalia (Somaliland and Puntland), where people managed, on the basis of their own traditions and with the help of the diaspora, to end the civil war and build a peaceful and stable political order, suggests that a solution for Somalia can only be found without massive external interventions.
Political legitimacy has to grow from within Somalia and cannot be constructed from without. Peace conferences outside of Somalia bringing about illegitimate governments staffed by corrupt and criminal personal that need to be protected by armed intervention forces committing atrocities are the recipe that led to disaster in Somalia.
Finally, Somalia should not only be left alone. Also the “bad neighbors” – particularly Ethiopia and Eritrea – have to be watched. These two powers, together with the USA (supporting Ethiopia) spoiled what was effectively the only real hope for Southern and Central Somalia after more than a decade of warlordism and statelessness – a government based on Islamic principles led by the UIC.
Of course, the UIC was not “perfect” and it can only be speculated if it would have managed to remain in power, given the tensions between the more moderate and the more radical forces within it. But at least the UIC had come to power on its own and concentrated, for some months, more on service delivery than any other political actor in Southern Somalia since 1991.
It is very likely that a political order in Southern Somalia will, at least for the near future, involve Islamist actors. Not all of them are radical global jihadists. Many of the non-violent Islamists are concerned with the social and political reform in Somalia, and they have the right to be heard in a plural discussion about Somalia’s future. To facilitate such a discussion should be the only role of benevolent outside actors.
Markus Virgil Hoehne
Markus Hoehne, PhD, works at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. He publishes extensively on Somali affairs and the Horn of Africa and is the coeditor, with Virginia Luling, of Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics (London, 2010).
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